Lee Odden

Google Did Not Just Kill PR Agencies

Google Kill PR AgenciesGoogle updated their content guidelines for links recently causing a bit of buzz amongst the SEO community, mostly from those looking for clarification. I’ll get to that shortly, but something else popped up that’s worth debunking.

The link scheme clarifications directed at webmasters also attracted a post from ZDNet via Tom Foremski’s sensationally titled article, “Did Google just kill PR agencies?”.

In case you didn’t know, PR agencies do a lot more that create press releases, let alone over-optimize them for search.

Companies rely on PR firms for a variety of services and consulting ranging from strategy and message development to media relations and social media outreach to monitoring and reporting.  Product launches, press conferences, event management and promotion, reputation and crisis management, media training, investor relations and of course content creation are all services provided by different PR agencies.

Press releases are most often at the top of the list of public relations content along with reports, white papers, newsletters, case studies, corporate website pages, newsrooms, blog posts, short form social media content and media from images to audio to video.  To suggest that overly optimized press releases and other content will bring down the PR industry is simply a sensational headline.

It’s true, there are a lot of changes happening in the PR world right now and one area in particular that’s worth exploring risks and rewards involves the shift to native ads or as Google calls it, “commerce journalism”.  I talked with Cara Posey about this recently and will likely post more about it here. But back to this business of optimized press releases killing PR agencies. Really?

So what’s all the fuss about? Is there merit in that Google’s guidelines can affect PR agencies or their clients?

Yes. But no more than the large number of small businesses and marketing consultants that fuel the the optimized press release distribution industry. That’s right. I’ll wager that if you asked a service like PRWeb who the bulk of their press release distribution customers are, it’s not PR agencies. It’s small businesses and marketing consultants.

This business about natural and unnatural links is a SEO thing more than a Public Relations thing. But as you know, our position is that anyone who creates content online should be aware of SEO best practices, so here’s more about the recent changes.

Google’s updated guidelines take an aggressive stance towards any kind of link building that isn’t “natural”:

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

To be more specific, some examples include:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links

The excerpt that was extrapolated on as the doom of all PR agencies was the following with the blue text representing “unnatural” keyword links:

Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example:

There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.

Clearly the passage above is overly aggressive in pointing keyword links (anchor text links) to a page for the purposes of increasing it’s ranking. If you’re doing that, it’s not going to help you. It may even hurt the site you’re linking to.

If you’re doing that sort of thing with press releases, contributed articles or guest posts, maybe you can reconsider and start writing content people will actually want to read!  If you are compelled to write and link gratuitously with keywords, at least add the re=”nofollow” attribute to the link so they don’t pass Page Rank.

In fact, when it comes to articles and press releases, Google’s position is to nofollow everything.  You may as well treat press releases as if they were advertising. And why not? Create a compelling news story, link it to a landing page and use a news release distribution service to drive exposure to your “offer”.

So on a go forward, links in guest posts, contributed articles and press releases should probably have a rel=”nofollow” attribute added to them to make the Google webspam team happy.

But what about links that are already in past press releases and articles?  In a response to a question Barry Schwartz asked during a Webmaster Central hangout, Google’s John Mueller suggests cleaning them up:

“We want to really make clear that we see this (press release links) as an unnatural link. So we want to make it easier for people to go through their back links and clean up these things if they’re aware of any kind of issues they’ve had there.”

Here’s the full video of the hangout:

If it still seems a little fuzzy as to what kinds of links are OK and which to avoid, here’s a video with the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts (and a co-worker named Sandy) explaining what “natural” and “unnatural” links are.

I should note that besides the linking guideline update for the general search on Google.com, Google has been taking a closer look at online news sources for quality as well. Earlier this year Google made it very clear on the Google News blog that advertorial and paid links would not be accepted and could result in removal: “we may exclude your entire publication from Google News.”

So Google’s position on editorial content and links vs. paid content and links isn’t exactly new, but the revised language makes it pretty clear there’s a crackdown on links that are not editorial or merit based.

How do you avoid being penalized from unnatural links? The link to Google News blog above covers this as does a post on Ragan, but it’s essentially about making it easy for Google to understand which content and links are paid and which are editorial.  You can do that by:

1. Putting paid content on a sub-domain or sub-folder and then blocking Googlebot from crawling that content with a robots.txt file or meta tags

2. Make sure paid links (ads) have rel=”nofollow” added to the link attribute whether those links are pointing to your site from sponsored content on another site or from your own site linking out (assuming the link was paid or an ad and not editorial).

Google will send Webmasters a notice if their site has been identified as having violated Webmaster Content Quality Guidelines. Of course in order to get those messages, you need a Google Account and your site needs to be connected with Google Webmaster Tools first.

But even if you comply with Google’s latest content guidelines, who’s to say they won’t take things even further? What if all Google traffic to your website disappeared? What’s your contingency plan? If you don’t want to be left with zero options other than online advertising, maybe you need to think about “UnGoogling” your online marketing. That’s a topic for another blog post.

In the meantime, I’m curious if you have been sending out press releases through distribution services with anchor text links? Now that you are aware of Google’s updated linking guidelines, will you change how you approach press releases? Blog posts? Articles?

Do you have any further questions, please post those as well.

Image source: Shutterstock


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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


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  2. Avatar John Ellis says

    Lee…I think PR agencies have to accept that they are not, and never have been “linkbuilding” services. Yet… many sell their releases as such.

    I agree with you that the majority of the releases are for small biz. It was one of the ways we used to help grow a presence 3-5 years ago. Not really needed today.

    We still send out a PR Web release for a client every so often. We always include 1-3 links for ~ 500+ words. That’s always been my guideline for linking, That and is the link is warranted (useful, helpful, and not just for SEO).

    We’ve used that guideline since we started doing on-page SEO. To date, it has never done us wrong. Through all the major algo’s… 500 words, 1-3 useful keyword or related links. We won’t change that unless we see evidence of it negatively affecting rank.

    Thanks for presenting the non-sensational version of the story. 🙂

    • Glad you found it useful John 🙂 I think editorial “natural” links are icing on the cake with good media relations work by PR firms. But when it becomes a focus as a SEO deliverable, that’s where things start to degrade.

  3. Terrific post, Lee. Thanks for having a rational approach to an issue that has caused much irrational thinking.

  4. Avatar Tara Geissinger says

    I love the idea that self publishing press releases is akin to paid advertising — and that there is nothing wrong with that! I agree! Google removed a small bit of SEO value because people were abusing it. That doesn’t mean that press releases don’t serve a purpose, however. They are still great for building brand awareness, credibility and getting third parties talking about your company (when done correctly.) They are not (and have never been) a silver bullet solution. They are best used as part of an overall marketing campaign.

  5. Avatar Mark A. Evertz says

    Great job walking through all of this Lee. I can see my “brow raise” on articles and guest posts was a false alarm. Agree don’t be a keyword whore and jam each sentence with gratuitous links and all should be well. Thanks for the info.

  6. Awesome article lee!! Really an informative post. i agree that Google has made many changes in SEO just because people were making misuse of the SEO strategies and were adopting unethical methods to rank their site. but i am surprised that Guest posts are not doing much good. Thanks for sharing the idea.

  7. Avatar Cara Posey says

    Lee, thank you for diving into this and for backing up your information with so many additional sources. It’s interesting how press releases used to be about connecting with the media and in the past few years it has become about links, views, visits, etc. Why is this? Well, it is much easier to estimate site traffic and eyeballs; and people love metrics. Journalism is full of qualitative metrics. How many reporters saw your release? How many truly read it? How many people considered reporting on it? And if it was reported, how many people engaged with that information? It’s fuzzy and frustrating and difficult to measure.

    When I worked in government, PR was very easy because reporters were begging for news on what we were doing. Now, in technology and content marketing, we’re all offering our respective news and the market is over saturated. Hence why it has become more about links and promotion vs. news.

    So here we are…getting back to the basics and separating the idea of building relationships with the media from the idea of building links and brand awareness. The best possible result is getting a “published” article or post or video that points to your website, product, etc. This is far better than the value provided from a promotional release…just harder to come by, as you can’t write a check for $495 for that kind of coverage. Or, if you can, that’s another topic…

  8. “anyone who creates content online should be aware of SEO best
    practices” I agree. Today SEO should always be in the mind of a content
    creator, but with press releases this went too far and became the purpose of
    what was once designed for actual people to actually read. Google isn’t trying
    to kill PR agencies, they’re just trying to incentivize quality.

  9. Avatar Gergana Micova says

    press releases seem more and more irrelevant nowadays. I think google is changing the PR and marketing world for the better.